Sunday, April 8, 2012

Remembering What I Read

The Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño died in 2003.  About all I know of him came from articles written about him in The New York Review.  I was therefore surprised to see that, this past Thursday, he had a post on NYRBlog.  I had heard jokes about Facebook presences living on after death, but I had not expected to find a leading author writing from beyond the grave.

The post turned out to be a piece entitled “Scholars of Sodom,” taken from Chris Andrews’ translation of The Secret of Evil, due to be published by New Directions on April 17.  At the very least the post has made me curious about the book, since the text of the post seems to be an almost unclassifiable exercise in writing.  The first part is a “mind’s eye” description of V. S. Naipaul “strolling through the streets of Buenos Aires,” which amounts to two paragraphs of what is probably deliberate textual wandering.  The second part seems to imply that the first part was the beginning of one of Bolaño’s writing projects that never went anywhere.  The project appears to have been a reaction to several of Naipaul’s essays about Argentina;  and, as the bottom of the post observes and provides hyperlinks, three of those essays appeared in The New York Review.

Bolaño’s text is concerned primarily with Naipaul’s disgust for Argentina.  The source of that disgust seems to be Naipaul’s conviction that sodomy is “an Argentinean custom” (Bolaño’s choice of words).  Bolaño explores the path that may have led Naipaul to this conclusion and then asserts that the premises at the source of that path are nothing more than fabrications.

My initial reaction was that Bolaño had composed a clever piece of metafiction in an effort to defend (retroactively) Argentina against Naipaul’s attack.  He even injects himself into the fabric of this metafiction by observing that “Not even a Chilean” would have written “a critique as devastating as Naipaul’s.”  Upon further reflection, however, I realized that this is a more general text that cuts to the dangerously tight coupling between discrimination and raw hatred.  The fact is that, with surprisingly little variation, one could have written the same text about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and its relation (both cause and effect) to anti-Semitic thinking.

For this reason I decided that this is a text to be remembered, which brought me into a serious confrontation with my current struggles to manage my own memory.  These days when anyone asks me about a point of fact in something I have written for, I reply that I rely on search engines (mostly Google) to remind me of just what I have written in the past.  In other words, if I want to remember something, I have to make sure that I create a trace of it that some search engine will be able to recover.  I have previously written about how I use PowerPoint to provide me with “the moral equivalent of 3 x 5 cards,” that I can use to copy out passages I have read that I want to remember, as well as my own observations about such passages.

Now it seems that I am using blogging as yet another extension of memory.  For this particular text, it seemed more important to reflect on Bolaño’s virtual blog post with a blog post of my own, which would probably get indexed by Google very shortly after I publish it.  This struck me as the best thing for me to have done;  and so, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein’s conclusion to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I have and this is it.

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